Friday, August 10, 2012

"City of Scoundrels" by Gary Krist (2012)

July 1919 was known as the Red Summer for several reasons. The Bolsheviks had just taken over Russia in the Revolution of 1917, and there was a world war that had just ended, with millions of people heaping blame for the carnage on the backs of the Industrialists, whom many believed suckered us into a war for profit. Coupled with the rise of the Unions in our own country, with their links to the Communist movement taking place world-wide, a young man named J. Edgar Hoover was just launching his infamous “Red Squads”, who were responsible for rounding up, and deporting, those who would foster discontentment and dissent in America.
This was also a time of great scientific and mechanical advancement. The airplane had proven itself useful as a tool for war, but with peacetime there came the question of what to do with airpower. It was already being used to transport the mail, but what about people? Part of that aerial technology was the zeppelin; or dirigible; which carried passengers in a gondola suspended from the zeppelin itself. In July of 1919 one such zeppelin was scheduled to land in Chicago to much acclaim. There was even talk of Chicago becoming the destination for flights from London and Paris, which would bypass New York, carrying her passengers further into the interior of the United States than an ocean voyage to our coast could accomplish. Until this point, if you came from Europe hoping to settle anywhere in the interior portion of the United States, you first took a ship to the coast of New York, or San Francisco, and then worked your way inward from there.
Fresh from our victory in Europe, flush with capital to invest in new technologies, few could have imagined the chain of events which would begin with the arrival of Goodyear’s zeppelin “Wingfoot Express” on July 21, 1919 in Chicago.
At approximately 5 PM on that day; just as the fans at Comiskey Park were 3 innings into a double header between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox; the Wingfoot Express exploded over downtown Chicago, crashing through the glass domed roof of the Illinois Trust Company building, and setting fire to an area of Chicago’s famed loop. The 5 passengers and crew all jumped with parachutes, but only 4 opened properly, and even those caught fire from being too close to the burning zeppelin as they opened.
As horrifying as this event was, it was only the beginning. For the next 2 weeks Chicago would be torn by unrelated tragedies, all unfolding upon the heels of the last one. Within 2 days of the zeppelin incident, a race riot broke out in South Chicago at the 26th Street section of the beach along the shores of the lake, which was broken up into several segregated places for blacks and whites to swim separately. The riot began as a routine disagreement, but quickly became one of the worst race riots in American history.
A transit strike followed on the heels of that tragedy, forcing many Chicagoans into the street for their commutes to work. This event only served to enlarge the violence begun by the riots at the beach, as blacks and whites were forced, by the strike, to pass through one another’s neighborhoods, and multiplying the odds for even more violence.
As if this was not enough trouble for one town to deal with in such a short period of time, the body of a 6 year old girl, who had been missing, was found in the basement of a tenement building on the North Side of Chicago. This was the worst part of the entire 2 weeks, as neighbors began to distrust their neighbors, and no children played in the streets.
The evangelical put it down to the wrath of God, and while the blacks and whites blamed one another, there were still others, some with political ambitions, who were willing to add fuel to the fire in order to reap some sort of benefits from these combined tragedies.
A wide ranging look at one of America’s most fascinating cities, the author has crafted a highly readable book from the ashes of a summer which spun wildly out of control.

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